Exit Opera, Now Playing Vivaldi: Jon von Tetzchner, the Browser Composer
As he walks across the lobby to meet you, you are always struck by how quietly he walks for a tall person. Vivaldi CEO Jon von Tetzchner cuts a very tall and imposing figure (though he gently corrects my description of his height from “six feet seven inches” to “six feet five, please”) but he walks silently – we could hear the wheels on his suitcase but not his footfalls. Perhaps it is the music in his blood, something that has led to his giving browsers names that seem to be more from the world of music than megabytes.
“I like classical music,” he explains in a voice that is rather soft for such a tall man. “Actually I was brought up with a lot of classical music. My great grandfather was a composer, my grandmother was a composer. My great grandfather was Iceland’s probably most recognized classical music composer. So while I was a kid, I would sit on my grandmother’s lap while she was playing the piano.”
The CEO of Vivaldi is best known for being one of the founders of the Opera browser, and for his less than pleasant departure therefrom a few years ago. This was followed by a period of silence, with speculation about where he was headed next.
The answer was: another browser. Not really surprising to those of us who knew him. This was, after all, the man who thumped his chest and thundered: “Browsers are in our blood” when I interviewed him a decade ago. The new browser was Vivaldi, and as was the case in Opera, von Tetzchner’s focus was on creating something which gave the consumer something very different from what the market was offering.
That he has succeeded to an extent is evident from the largely positive response the browser has been receiving from our brethren. He smiles when we mention it – he does not do loud laughs like he used to.
“Fantastic reviews. Typically what is been happening in a lot of cases is that all journalists end up being the Vivaldi users. And that has been a fantastic situation. So, they have switched to Vivaldi or they have tried it out because they want to do a thorough job on testing it. So they get to learn it and they become users. And that is a fantastic feeling,” he says.
What about the users, though, we ask, pressing him for numbers?
“The end users have been extremely happy. The loop that we are going in is very good,” he says. “The numbers, we are reaching the first million active users which I think is a very very good start. It takes time to build.” He pauses and then continues with a smile that can only be described as wry. “I have done this before and as a little example, with Opera, it took us 15 years to get a 100 million users and then 18 more months to get to two hundred. Because it is exponential growth. We reach people through word of mouth. And that means for every person that starts to use us, there is another group of people that learns about it and there is a gradual process…”
But isn’t it a big challenge to come out with a new browser in a world that is pretty much dominated by the likes of Chrome, Internet Explorer (or Edge), Firefox and the like. Von Tetzchner thinks about the answer and then shakes his head.
“Actually to me, it has been that way for as long as I can remember,” he points out. “When we started, the number one browser was Mosaic. There were a number of browsers out there but they quickly disappeared. Then Microsoft came in and they reached 90 per cent and there really was not a lot of competition.” He switches to the present. “So in this case, the biggest player is about 60 per cent, Chrome. Then you have IE, FireFox, Safari, Opera. All with some kind of level of support. I think in some ways, you have more choices than you had before with regards to browsers, more real choices but on the other hand, they are all very similar.”
The Vivaldi Way
Which gets us to the core philosophy behind Vivaldi, the new browser Von Tetzchner is involved with, and which received an update recently. According to him, it is all in the approach to the browser.
“We have something unique to bring to the table. The others, they just build the browsers, and you should like it – that is their thinking. And they compete more on distribution than on the quality of software. This is not to say that they are not trying to build great software but they are following the same recipe,” he pauses to compose himself, then continues. “Now, we follow a very different recipe. And it is about individuals. So, instead of saying we built one software, you use it, you adapt to it or that the software is built for some average user that doesn’t exist, we believe that everyone deserves the attention. Everyone deserves to get it their way.”
Seeing our looks of puzzlement, he elaborates: “That means if you want to use keyboard to navigate with a browser, that is your choice. You want to use mouse gestures, that is your choice. You want to enter comments, that is your choice, as well. And we provide multiple ways to do the same thing because we recognize that people have different opinions on how to do things. And this all through a loop where we send out releases, get feedback from end users, put in their request and gradually improve the browser so the time any user should be able to download it and after a little bit of tweaking, it will feel like as he or she made it himself.”
He leans forward and spreading his hands, says with a smile:
“We are all different, and we are all equal. That is the point.”
This sensitivity to just how different people are, and how products needed to be made flexible enough to be adjusted to the needs of each is an essential part of the von Tetzchner philosophy. “My father was a professional psychologist specializing in children with disabilities,” he explains. “So, the concept of adapting to people, to their requirements, is a very natural thing. It is not something you would do to put a check mark where you say ‘I have hit the requirements.’ It is more like what can we do, to do something special for people. With the early versions of Opera we were doing things like, being able to zoom the content of the pages, which no one did. We also did the ability to control the content, for example, turn the background black and the text green and things like that to adapt to a certain requirement from people with low vision and low light.”
He pauses to collect his thoughts and continues, his voice still soft but more intense now. “We should build our software to adapt to people. That should be our goal. Now because we adapt, we can not adapt to everyone out of the box. Trying to learn things often goes wrong. But you can just ask the users, to make their choices, they normally know what they want. And that’s we do.”
Being different and not being on mobile…yet
All of which sounds excellent and even noble on paper, but given the grim reality of the tech world which is replete with a number of better-known and very high-profile alternatives, why would anyone opt for Vivaldi, a relative newcomer to the browser business? Von Tetzchner has his answer ready.
“I think what we are going for here, in many ways is a feeling. So you download Vivaldi, you think it looks beautiful. It is more colorful , it is a fresh look and then when you start to work with it a little bit, you change a couple of things and it suddenly just feels right,” he stresses the point, hitting a key on an invisible keyboard. “It is there, it is doing things as you want them to be. Everything just works and you are thinking, ‘this is so natural.’ everything you do, you learn a few things and then you find that when you go and use other software, and you wonder ‘why don’t they do this? Why can’t I use that function here? Why I am not able to go back and forth in history, in the same way, I do in Vivaldi? Why am I not able to change things in the same way? Why can’t I use the mouse gestures?’ Things like that. It starts to become a very natural part of what you are doing with a browser.”
His hitting the invisible keyboard leads to another question – a rather logical one. Why in this era of “mobile first” has Vivaldi opted for going for a browser that works only on the desktop? Is there a mobile avatar in the works?
“It is just not done yet,” von Tetzchner says. “I mean when we started, our thinking was to do a mobile browser. We started it but then we ran into some roadblocks in mobile and we decided ‘let’s finish the desktop browser, let’s not hold up the older releases because of mobile.’ Mobile is clearly part of our plan. There is no question about it. Android first because we are able to reuse the code. The iPhone is not so easy, because of Apple not allowing competing browsers engines.”
He pauses to think and then adds, “But we are hoping Apple will do the right thing and will say, ‘ okay, we will allow alternative browsers.’ I think that would be good but if they don’t, it is going to take a longer time with iOS. I mean it is out of our control. The browser itself is built using Web standards. Which are very scalable. But again, in the iPhone we cannot reuse the code in the same way so it is going to be more complicated. But we will do that as well. We will get there as well but it will take longer.”
Just how long, we probe.
“We expect next year, we will have a mobile version for Android,” he begins, then rolls his eyes and breaks into a smile as he realizes that there are barely a few weeks left in this year. And elaborates: “In the later half of the next year. It takes time to build good software. And there is no reason for us to send out a browser just for the sake of it. It has to be different and unique.” Sensing our disappointment at not getting a distinct date, he shrugs his shoulders and says: “We are a small company. We take things in a natural way. We decided to work in a way which is unique and different. Underneath we have Chromium, I wish we had made it from scratch but it is just not viable to do.”
Opera: “I thought they would do the right things. They didn’t.”
The reference to a ‘small company’ brings forth the inevitable question about the company that he co-founded and left behind. And not too happily either. He is generally inscrutable but it is difficult not to notice a slight quaver in his voice when von Tetzchner talks of Opera. And concedes that perhaps he should have moved earlier.
“I think the main thing is, once I left as CEO, I stuck around as an advisor. It was very clear that in that period, I was there as a passenger of a kind,” he shakes his head, a small and a rather wry smile playing across his. He holds up his hands in the air as if expecting to find words which would describe the feeling: “I mean, I was there. I was wanting to make sure that Opera continued on its path … but it was very clear that to me that that was not happening.”
He brings his hands down wearily. They clearly did not find the words he was looking for. Almost tentatively, because you sense the grief in the person, you ask how it felt. He looks up and the wry grin comes out again:
“You are sitting in a company that you built all your life. And you are seeing it destroyed in front of your eyes. I was seeing the products not getting the attention that they should. I was seeing my friends losing their jobs unnecessarily because the company was not in a strong financial position,” he pauses, and again the struggle for words ensues. “I should not have been in that advisory position. But I was trying to help a positive transition that I was hoping that the new management would be actually good for the company. I was hoping that they would do the right things.”
He stops, then waves a long arm in the air, as if closing a book or turning a page. And smiles at us.
“I knew the people. I thought they would do the right thing but they didn’t.”
It is a heartbreakingly sad smile.
Composing browser music again!
His tone changes when he speaks of the future. Of Vivaldi. And this 37-strong team. Of course, music comes into it.
“I mean, geeks are so many things,” he says with the closest thing to a laugh. “There is a stereotypical thing (that they are weird and think only technology). In my experience, the geeks that I work with, a lot of them a very highly talented. A number of them, they play instruments, they sing. So just inside the little group that we have, we have one opera singer, we have one guy that just gave out his first CD and has a band. We have a third guy and he’s fantastic on the keyboard. We have the fourth guy, we actually that the guy in the band, he also plays trumpet quite well.”
He switches to their work side and what Vivaldi will be doing in the coming days.
“We will be working on the mobile version, that is going take some time. We have the mail client which is a much-anticipated feature. That will be coming sooner than the mobile version, but still, would take some time,” he says. And of course, there is the new version of Vivaldi (1.5), which just became available for download. Von Tetzchner calls it “a nice new version.”
“There are a number of improvements,” he explains. “We have the download panel being improved, we have dragging tabs and tabs selection. Then we have a little bit of the box thing. Now we change the color of your room if you have a Philips Hue light bulb which has the capability to show different colors. So now when you are browsing and you go to Facebook whatever light bulbs that you have, will be blue.”
But isn’t that a bit, well, a bit of a stunt? Von Tetzchner considers this and replies: “There are two sides to it. On the one side, it’s cool. On the second side, I think it’s the first time we are thinking out of the box, literally. And I think it’s something that can be quite useful if we hook it (the lights) to your browsing. Over time, maybe you can program it. If a certain mail that comes in, it will show a certain color change. Things like that.”
And does he expect Vivaldi to do well in India? “A lot of users in India have an affinity for Opera, and I kind of hope that would extend to Vivaldi over time,” he says. “I think there is a lot of really smart people over here. People are willing to try out something new and are not afraid of new technologies. And obviously, a lot of Indians have used an Opera product over the years. I’m just hoping that people would swap to us.”
He says the last with an ironic smile. But there is no insecurity about it. He does not laugh as much as he used to when I first met him almost a decade ago. But there is a quiet assurance about Jon von Tetzchner now. Because the man who once said that browsers were in his blood, is in familiar territory. He is making browsers again. In his way. On his terms. The Opera might be over for him But the air is full of the strains of Vivaldi. And holding the baton. And composing it gently is a tall man. Six foot five inches tall.
Somewhere, we think Jon von Tetzhchner’s grandmother would have taken her fingers off her piano and will be smiling in approval.
Her grandson is too big now to sit in her lap. But he is fine. In fact, he is feeling, to use his favorite word:
(With inputs and photographs by Akriti Rana.)